Deadly Accidents May Have Top Rival Convinced America’s Naval Power Is Doomed

REUTERS/Toru Hanai

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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A string of accidents has taken a toll on the U.S. Navy, and the sharks are swarming.

After the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel near Japan in July, killing seven American sailors, a commercial vessel slammed into the side of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John McCain in August, ending the lives of another ten American service members.

These accidents were preceded by two other incidents involving the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers USS Lake Champlain and USS Antietam. While these incidents were not fatal, they were a black mark on the record of the U.S. Seventh Fleet.

China took notice.

Immediately after the second accident, Chinese state media declared that the “U.S. Navy has become a hazard in Asian waters.” Just a few weeks prior to the deadly accident, the USS John McCain conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation challenging China’s vast claims to the South China Sea.

An article in the Chinese military newspaper China National Defense asserts that the U.S. Navy consists of “men [that] are weary, [with] their steeds spent, helmets askew, and armor bent,” according to a detailed analysis by Lyle J. Goldstein, a professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Naval War College.

One Chinese article reportedly concluded that the accidents were the result of “excessive self-confidence,” with some Chinese analysts asserting “the U.S. Navy finds itself getting into accidents lately against the background of commonly entering other countries’ nearby seas and sensitive waters to undertake so-called patrols with ships in bad condition, personnel physically and spiritually exhausted, and with lax safety knowledge.”

Chinese observers also suggested that the the U.S. Navy is too small to maintain an adequate presence in all eighteen crucial sea areas. Others noted that U.S. shipyards struggle to maintain America’s naval forces.

If China assumes the U.S. is a paper tiger, it might embolden the rising Asian power to challenge American interests at sea, Goldstein explains. China has one operational aircraft carrier and another one on the way and is in the process of building a modern blue water naval force. The country’s naval assets are still inferior to those of the U.S., but they are improving.

China is also churning out ships at a rapid rate while the U.S. force in Asia has already lost several ships to accidents. Goldstein argues it is time to “right the ship” to preserve American naval power.

While the U.S. Navy has suffered setbacks, which are currently under investigation, it remains the most powerful in the world today.

Vice Admiral Tom Rowden, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Surface forces, stressed in January that while U.S. and Chinese ships may appear similar, “one of them couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag, and the other one will rock anything that it comes up against.”

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